The big picture for smallholder farmers - Acumen

The big picture for smallholder farmers

By Hilary Ferro on August 14, 2013

Eldoret, in rural western Kenya, is stunningly beautiful with lush green fields and bright red soil as far as the eye can see.  I am struck by the amount of economic activity that is happening here; if people aren’t tending their cattle or transporting milk to their local chilling centers, they are either buying or selling goods at the bustling local market.  Everywhere I look people are smiling and busy.

This strong work ethic is consistent with what I have encountered throughout Kenya.  Despite the fact that most of the population earns less than $4 per day, people here work long hours without complaint and are always striving to do more.  44% of the population relies on agriculture as their main source of income, so I am excited to be spending my summer evaluating potential new investments for Acumen’s Agriculture Portfolio in East Africa that have strong potential to be sustainable and to have a measurable impact on smallholder farmers.

Hilary interviewing a smallholder dairy farmer.

Hilary interviewing a smallholder dairy farmer.

I am visiting Eldoret for due diligence on a potential investment in a company that provides a key input for dairy farmers.  The primary area of focus for this visit is to better understand the various distribution channels the company plans to use to get its product to market.  Meeting with dairy cooperatives leads to various new insights, as I learn about the impact a cooperative membership can have for a farmer in terms of the ability to obtain inputs on a check-off system that deducts the cost from his or her milk sales rather than requiring a cash payment.  Meeting with local farmers is also an eye opening experience – it turns out that dairy farmers, at least in this region, are much better educated about new technologies than the industry research suggests.  Throughout this visit, some of what I have read in reports on Kenya’s dairy industry has been confirmed but there have been quite a few surprises as well.  It reinforces that while we should use all available information, there is no substitute for going out into the field and talking to the people who are living and breathing the industry on a daily basis.

The other major “Aha moment” for me from this trip is an understanding of how all of Acumen’s agriculture investments in East Africa fit together.  It is easy to think of them as all being separate when we are working on discrete projects in the office, but by visiting a local dairy cooperative and learning that the coop already works with two of Acumen’s investees to provide inputs and financing to its members, and that it is in the process of installing energy systems from another Acumen investee, it becomes very clear that everything is part of a bigger picture.  Acumen’s investees are working across the agriculture value chain toward Acumen’s ultimate goal of reducing poverty.  It is exciting to think about what can be achieved as we continue to innovate and scale throughout the value chain, enabling smallholder farmers to maximize the output of their hard work.

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